CDCR Time Capsule

Jan. 4, 1912: San Quentin officer describes duties

San Quentin inmates watch a baseball game while a guard supervises.
San Quentin's incarcerated population watches a baseball game circa 1915, probably for the Fourth of July. (CDCR file photo.)

(Editor’s Note: Former Officer William Conroy discusses typical duties at San Quentin in the early 1900s in this piece published by The Santa Cruz Evening News on Jan. 4, 1912. Conroy describes the layout of the guard posts, procedures and responsibilities. At the time, correctional officers were officially called guards. The correctional officer classification was established during the department’s creation in 1944. This was the sixth of a series Conroy wrote for the newspaper. When it was published, he worked for the Santa Cruz Fire Department. He had also served as a deputy sheriff.)

Guard towers, rules and duties in early 1900s

By William Conroy, former correctional officer
San Quentin State Prison

Many people who have heard and read of San Quentin prison have been made to form an impression that a guard at the prison can handle a prisoner at his own pleasure which is all together wrong. A guard has no right to strike or abuse a prisoner in any way, shape or manner except in case of self-defense.

If a prisoner disobeys the rules of the prison, or does something wrong, he is handled by a guard on practically the same principles that one of our policemen would handle a man on the street. He is taken to the office of the Captain of the Yard and the charges (are made) against him the same as (in any) court.

There the complaining guard is done with him and it is up to the captain of the yard to give him his sentence either to the dungeon or the straight jacket, but if it is a bad case – for the solitary – it must come up before the warden (acting as judge), and possibly before the prison board of directors – (like) the supreme court.

San Quentin officer duties similar to police

So you can see a guard is nothing more than a policeman. This applies to the guards working in the jute mill, handling the road gang and wherever guards may have prisoners under their charge.

Then there is another class of guards who seldom ever come in contact with the prisoners. They are the guards of the first and second watches.

The first watch goes in the yard at lock-up, and is relieved at midnight by the second watch. Then they can go to bed but have to turn out all the bell taps in the morning, and go on outside duty until noon; then they are off until lock-up again.

The second watch gets off at bell taps in the morning and can go to bed until noon; then they must go on duty until lock-up. After lock-up they can go back to bed again and sleep until half past eleven. Then (they) get up and go to supper (and) relieve the first watch at midnight. So you see, the first and second watch have to get their sleep on the installment plan.

Couldn’t sleep enough

There was one guard who used to work on the watch that could not get sleep enough. Consequently, if he sat down in his guard post, he would go to sleep. If caught this meant the “carpet;g” the warden’s office and possibly dismissal. So to overcome it, he would place a brick bat between his knees when he sat down. If he went to sleep, his knees would relax, let the brick bat fall on the floor, and wake him up. I will not vouch for the truth of this, but old guards at the prison say it is a fact.

The first and second watch call every hour from 9 in the evening to 6 in the morning. This is done principally to see that they are all awake and watchful.

The call starts at box one, thus “nine o’clock, and all is well,” then two repeats it, and so on until eight have called. If any of them fail to call, the sergeant of the watch is there in a hurry.

Wall posts

I have dwelt long enough on this watch so I will tell you something of the wall posts. The wall itself is on an average of about 20 feet high. It is about five-feet thick at the base and three feet on top, with a railing on this wall.

There are eight guard posts at various distances apart. These posts are little houses about 5 feet by 6 feet in size with] glass fronts facing into the yard, who carry no weapons, as no one is allowed to carry a gun inside the walls.

While the prisoners are not locked in their cells, (the San Quentin wall officer duties can be) very tiresome. He has to be constantly watching all the maneuvers of the prisoners in the yard, day in and day out – Sundays and holidays, it is all the same to him.

Tower posts

But the most monotonous posts of them all are the tower posts, which sit upon the side hill. Those posts are all equipped with Gatling guns, which are trained on the prison and surrounding grounds outside the walls, such as the vegetable gardens, chicken and hog ranch, where there are quite a number of prisoners at work, with no one over them but the guards in the tower post.

A stranger visiting San Quentin is somewhat surprised to see prisoners in striped suits working around the gardens and going here and there with apparently nothing to detain him if he wished to run away; but when he looks up on the hillside above the prison, he can plainly see the obstacle in his way. A guard in one of those posts has a very tedious position, as he has to keep his eye on every movement of those fellows at work.

Every prisoner that comes out of the gate to go to work is passed to the guard in the post by the captain by a signal of his hand; otherwise the guard will hold him up and not let him pass. A tower post is a two-story affair, about 12 feet square. The upper story is made with glass, on the same principle as a hot house; and believe me, in the summertime it is a real hot house.

Typical shifts and duties for a San Quentin officer

Those guards go to work at bell tap in the morning and quit at bell tap at night. If I am not mistaken, I believe all state work comprises eight hours for a day, although many of the guards work 10 to 12 hours. … It is almost as confining at San Quentin for a guard as it is for a convict; the only difference with many of them is that the guard wears a uniform and the prisoner wears stripes.

Many of the guards’ families live on the prison grounds, in their houses built by the state for their accommodation and rented to them. They can also buy mostly all the staple articles of food at the commissary.

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